Category Archives: 05 – Amongst the Stalwarts

My adulthood in the service. Learning to be a leader

Our Minds


It was a cloudy morning in Delhi.  The year was 1967.  The retiring Vice President was on his farewell tour.  On that day he was in Muzaffarpur in Bihar.  The VP had been provided with an IL-14 for the trip by the Communication Squadron. The hot news in the corridors of Western Air Command (WAC)  that morning was that the Ground Starter trolley at Muzaffarpur had become unserviceable. No possibility of a local ‘standby’ existed. Th VP had to continue with his planned visit. Therefore a replacement had to be sent from Delhi.

The Comn Squadron had no aircraft that could lift a trolley without time consuming modification of its passenger cabin. The problem thus landed in the lap of the Air II of WAC. A rapid scanning of resources indicated that one IL-14 ( of 43 Squadron ?) was physically available at Palam. The aircraft was immediately appropriated for the task. The crew consisted of two young pilots and two or three SNCOs. They were called to the Command HQ for a meeting. That is where I met these boys for the first time.

I was then the OPS -I of WAC. The offices or Air-I and Air II were adjacent. I over heard the mention of Muzaffarpur and my ears pricked up. I had my uncle in that town and I had not seen the old man for quite a while. My table that morning was free of files and I had nothing particular to do. The aircraft was going to Muzaffarpur now and would be coming back by the evening. If I could only go…

I knocked on the Air-I s door. He was not amused but did not prevent me from my proposed galavant.  I went to the Air-II. He had no objection to my travelling as a supernumerary pilot. My name got included as a part of the crew. As I was about to run down to the ground-floor I crossed the path of Air-I again.  He assumed that I was about to run away for half a day and said that I should  clear my half-day absence from work from the SASO (Senior Air Staff Officer, my super boss). The SASO’s nod for the trip was also obtained. We then rushed to the Technical Area of Palam where the aircraft was parked.

Loading the Starter Trolley took some time. We departed with a task that could be summarised   As : Load at Palam- Destination Muzaffarpur – Unload – Patna for refuelling – back to 

Palam. A straightforward task.

At Muzaffarpur I talked the airport officer into providing me with a transport. Very quickly I went home. Chacha Chachi were pleasantly surprised. Charan-Sparsh and a plate of food, and I was back at the airport.

The load was not yet down.  Fortunately the VP was also late.  All went well. After the departure of the VP  we were ready to go. We were about 2 hours behind our planned departure time.  After taxiing out the captain told me that instead of refuelling at Patna, we would be picking up fuel at Bakshi Ka Talab.  I was a bit surprised.   I did not know whether the captain had the authority to change a flight plan issued by the Air-II. Being just a glorified passenger on this flight I did not comment or interfere. We set course for Bakshi Ka Talab.

The weather enroute was bad and was getting worse. Contact on VHF radio was unsatisfactory.  As we came close to Lucknow we  seemed to be heading into a solid wall of cloud. Bakshi refused to accept us.The airfield was under an active thunder-storm. The Captain turned the aircraft towards Kanpur and called Chakery.  Chakery VHF did not respond for a long time.  When contact was ultimately established we were told that Chakery was closed for runway repair. We turned back towards Lucknow and called the civilian airfield Amausi.  This airfield was willing to accept us. They informed us that the airfield was experiencing  light rain.  They were then requested for urgent refuelling.  We were still on our way back from Kanpur when Amausi called up to say that there was no AVGAS with them, which is the fuel we needed. They only stocked AVTUR, the fuel type needed by civil aviation. They advised us not to come as they would have difficulty parking us overnight.

We were now in trouble. Fuel was running low.  Our aircraft was in a holding pattern, in and out of a cloud mass. Finding the aircraft in a holding pattern I went into the cockpit and asked the co-pilot what the situation was.  The co-pilot told me the highlights of the situation.  I then turned to the captain and asked him about his plan. He did not respond, so I repeated my question. He turned to look at me – I saw panic in his eyes. He obviously had no plan. He broke eye contact and looked forward again.  I felt pretty sure that he was being gripped by panic. Something had to be done. I gently tapped him on the head with my knuckles. He was startled and he looked at me again. I told him gently – Kanpur is closed – Bakshi has a thunderstorm – you are short of fuel and you have to land.  Amausi is available, land there. He was still not out of his confusion. He said – “But sir they have no space to park, they won’t let me land.” I put my hand on his shoulder and spoke as calmly as I could – “Declare a fuel emergency – they will have to let you in.” The look on his face changed back to normal.  He at last had something to do and he knew that he could do it. He declared a fuel emergency and landed at Amausi.

In fifteen minutes or so the thunderstorm moved away from Bakshi Ka Talab. I spoke to the base commander and persuaded him to accept our flight to land for refuelling.    That should have been the end of the story, but the Flight Safety Man inside me would not let me stop. While his aircraft was being refuelled I cornered the Captain for a chat.   Why did he change the flight plan?  Initially he said that weather was uncertain therefore he wanted to return early. That reason was a little difficult for me to accept at face value as he could have requested for a change of plan before starting the task.  After some further persuasion he admitted that there was a function at home and he wanted to reach home in time for it. Having got that inconvenient fact off his chest he became his normal self. He thanked me for helping him and we  parted company.

I did not report the incident then, but I have always felt that the lessons of the incident should be percolated in the world of aviation and outside. Today, more than 50 years after the incident, let me sieve it for the lessons.

The seed of this incident was laid when the crew was hijacked on their way home.  Was the captain asked by the authorising and tasking authority about his availability?  I am not suggesting that the tasking authority needs to take the pilot’s approval before he is tasked.  I am assuming that the Flight Commander and/or the CO of the unit would have known about his social engagements. I am assuming the the Air-II staff would have consulted with  the CO/FltCdr about the task before hijacking the aircraft and crew. I am assuming that if/when asked, the unit would have told the Air-II staff about the social event who in turn would have commiserated with the pilot about his missing out on his party, and I am assuming the pilot would not have fretted and consumed a dose of gethomitis if he knew that the Service cares. Am I assuming too much ?  Perhaps yes. But I know of units / Officers Commanding / Flight Commanders where such expectations would be fulfilled.

The seed of the incident was nurtured by an eroded self discipline of the pilot.

  • Did the pilot think of modifying the flight-plan before starting from Delhi ? If ‘yes’, then
  • He should have had the flight plan officially modified 
  • Should have collected briefing for route weather and terminal facilities. He would have immediately realised that  Delhi-Muzaffarpur-Bakshi Ka Talab would leave him with very little fuel and no diversions. Non-availability of Kanpur would have forced him to stick to the authorised flight plan and stop fretting mentally about his party.
  • If the idea of modifying the flight plan occurred to him only after the delay at Muzaffarpur then 
  • He would be faulted for flight planning without sufficient route and terminal data in the face of known marginal weather condition with no possible diversions and with known marginal fuel condition. That would indeed be a case of bad airmanship.

Perhaps the situation was compounded by a feeling of guilt or regret playing on his mind that caused him to let panic overtake him when he had to face multiple adverse situations. In my opinion, if he did not have to carry some sort of fear or guilt in his mind he would not have panicked.

This was a complex case which fortunately avoided possible disaster. I debated with myself and decided not to mention the incident either to the Air-II or to the pilot’s  CO.   I felt that my detailed debrief given to the pilot would have to suffice in this case. Then why have I decided to put it in public domain after 53 years ? You can say it is just cleaning of my memory backlog. But in my own mind the motivation is different. While we investigate accidents that take place from aeronautical mechanical environmental and training aspects, we seldom investigate what was in the pilot’s mind. Such an investigation is difficult. None of us are trained for such an investigation. Such enquiries are also socially problematic. Then what would be the solution? My advise would be simple. Do not wait for an accident to happen. Within the unit, in day to day acts of leadership and camaraderie, try to be in tune with your unit men. Avoiding psychological pitfalls and strengthening mental resolve will follow. 


Memorable Moments – 1: In 1963 With the Battle Axe


On our journey from Childhood to OLd Age, we constantly interact with people. Some of them we meet and interact with over long periods time, our dear ones, our friends and also those who are not so friendly. Yet, there are others whom we meet only once or twice but cannot ever forget them. I have already penned one such story about a person named Pistumlal. I however have a clutch of stories about similar persons I cannot ever forget even though I do not know or remember their names! I will attempt to narrate one such incident today.

It was a cloudy day late in 1963. I was about to finish my tenure of duty with the Battle Axe as its adjutant. I had been posted to the Panthers who were, like the Battle Axe, located at Ambala. I was in the process of clearing out from one unit and moving to the other. I was to move to my new unit in a day or two. I had some paper work to attend to. It was late in the afternoon. The flight offices were closed. We were then operating off the Green Fields dispersal off tented accommodation. A couple of gangs were working in the technical area. I was in the Adjutant’s tent. The afternoon was busy for me as it was lonely at the same time. My work was suddenly interrupted by some commotion and the sound of people running. I put my files aside and came out of my tent to inquire what the matter was.

The scene that greeted me was quite confusing. There was some commotion around a Hunter aircraft parked outside a blast pen for last flight servicing. A young airman was hanging along the fuselage next to the cockpit ladder. His head was inside the cockpit, his hands were hanging by his side, and his feet were off the ladder. It seemed that the canopy had closed on his neck and he had passed out through suffocation. One airman was supporting his legs to prevent his neck from snapping. One sergeant of armament trade came running to disconnect the canopy from outside. As I looked on, the young technician was brought down. He was unconscious as he lay on a canopy cover spread on the ground as his emergency bed. I ran back to the adjutant’s tent to arrange medical support. At that part of the evening, the fire-rescue-ambulance support were not on an alert state. Flying had stopped some time earlier; every one was on ‘stand easy’. To get an ambulance to reach the spot took some time, and every second of that wait seemed like an eternity.

We ultimately reached the military hospital. Doctors took charge of the situation. The young airman was saved.

Unnoticed through this turmoil, one airman knelt next to the unconscious body of the stricken airman and continuously gave him artificial respiration. He performed this task continuously for about forty five minutes. This lad was not medically trained. He just happened to be around the spot of the incident as an electrician on duty. He had just been a Boy Scout in his school days and had been instructed on emergency help for respiratory problems. But for his dedicated intervention, the technician caught by the canopy would not have survived.

I left the unit a few days later. Ajit (Peter) Rawley took over the duties of being the Adjutant to Battle Axe One from me. About a week later, I asked Peter about the welfare of the stricken airman and about some Service Recognition for the lad whohad kept his friend alive. I was happy to learn that the technician was doing well. He had been discharged from the hospital. He was given some leave and he had gone home with his father who had come to take him home. I was also happy to learn that the young man who had provided respiratory support had been recommended for a Vayu Sena Medal. The sad part of the story is that this recommendation was reduced to a CAS’s commendation by the Command HQ and was further diluted to a letter of appreciation of the station commander by the Air HQ.

I have forgotten the name of this airman. Even his face is now obscure in my memory. I however remember the incident and I hold that man in high respect for his dedicated support to his comrade.


Jostling with Ethics -8- : Dancing Down the Street


Ethics is a very personal matter. After all, it is one’s own perception of right and wrong. While these perceptions are not immutable over time, changes to one’s perception of ethics need to spring internally. Any force or inducement to alter one’s ethics is normally resented. And yet, in a structured group like the Army/Navy/Air Force, the Commanding Officer is charged with the task of ensuring that individual ethics of the personnel under his command resonate with the group ethics of the Fauj. No one chronicles a list of what a fauji ethics aught to be. For the officers, it is just covered with a vague label ‘Officer Like Qualities’ or OLQ. The CO thus has the unenviable task of monitoring, strengthening, and often time modifying the ethical standards of the men under his command without ever appearing to be an interfering SOB. When I was a CO, I found this task very challenging. I often had to create a situation of a moral dilemma in the minds of selected officers and then force them to take an ethical stand without compromising with the task at hand. My story today is about one such incident.

Batra was my Signals Officer. Young, smart and reliable. He joined me at Chandigarh when I converted the Black Archers on to MiG 21 Type 77, and he moved with the squadron a year later from there to Hindon. Soon after our arrival at Hindon, Batra announce that a marriage has been arranged for him. The date for the event was fixed. The venue for the event was in North Delhi, not far from Hindon. I proposed that the Archers will attend the marriage function enmass. One of the officers was made in charge of administration. A bus was to be hired for the journey. Every one was excited.h

On inquiry it transpired that for the selected date of marriage, hiring charges for a bus was very high. The cost for the journey, even a 1/20 share of it, was steep. It seemed that my plan for leading a big Baraat for the marriage would fizzle out.We needed new ideas, and my boys were keen to solve the problem. A scouting party reported that a road under construction from near our base was now useable. The road could take us to a newly built bridge over the river Yamuna reducing our distance to our destination by about half. Would it now be within 20 kilometers from the base? We did not really know. That piece of information was important because it would then become possible for us to hire a service motor coach at subsidized rates for the journey. Such amenity run was permissible only up to a distance of 20 km. Another scouting party went out to actually measure the distance to our destination only to return crestfallen; the distance for the round trip was 43 km. These three additional kilometers made the trip untenable as an authorized . The matter came to me for a decision. It gave me a chance to initiate a nice debate on ethics.

I gathered all the boys and spelt out the dilemma. Technically the venue for the marriage was too far, albeit marginally. To use amenity transport we either had to walk the last kilometer and half or ask the MT driver to under log the distance by three kilometers. To get all the young girls in their finery to trudge one and a half dusty kilometers was not a welcome proposition. At the same time, knowingly ordering a subordinate, in this case the MT Driver, to resort to falsehood went against the grain. Hiring a civil transport was too expensive. I wanted my boys to consider the problem and advise me on a course of action. It did not take them long to figure out a solution.
As one of my smart officers propounded, there was really no problem. It was a Punjabi Marriage. Traditionally, the Baraat must arrive at the bride’s place with the groom on a horse-back accompanied by music and dancing. We would park the amenity transport at the 20th kilometer, ask the appointed Ghodi-walla to position the mare at that spot, we shall carry a couple of Dholaks, Cymbals and other musical instruments, and we would then sing and dance as the Baraat and reach the marriage venue.

The Baraat for Batra was noisy and boisterous. The Black Archers enjoyed themselves quite thoroughly. No ethical transgression took place.

Jostling With Ethics -6- : For Common Good


A paradigm of our social norm aims for universal ‘good’. Sarva Jana Hitaya,cha our scriptures advocate, and also Sarva Jana Sukhaya Cha. Surely that seems to be a good goal to strive for. Unfortunately, both these words – hita (benefit) and sukha (happiness) – are subjective concepts. Benefit for an individual can often mean the opposite for a group that the individual belongs to. Choice of actions for an individual in such situations of conflict becomes a matter of personal ethics. Read the rest of this entry

A Long and Arduous Path


Some time, in our humdrum daily life, we chance upon opportunities of doing some things of utmost importance without really being prepared for it. Some times the opportunity fructifies and you are able to achieve something memorable and valuable. At some other times, you either do not recognize the opportunity and let it slip by or are unable to take up the challenge for various reasons. On some other times, you get a chance and try your best, but your best turns out to be not good enough. The opportunity dies. These occasions leave a scar on your soul that do not heal with time. My tale today is of such a chance that I could not grab and see through. Read the rest of this entry

And Pirthi Needs a Tooth Brush


We, the men (and now a days also some women) in uniform live in a strange world. While we are tightly bound by rules and regulations, we are also expected to be innovative creative spontaneous decision makers in the face of unpredictable odds at all times. This dichotomy, between the need to be rule bound and yet be spontaneous and decisive, often land us in situations that are either hilarious or at other times are quite irritating. Read the rest of this entry

Acting Like Santa


The tale begins on a March morning in 1967. I had settled down as a member of the air staff in the Head Quarters of the Western Air Command. We were still operating from the Hutments that had housed the erstwhile Operational Command of the Air Force from the time it was formed in 1948. (That spot is now occupied by Terminal 1A of the IGI Airport.) I had a little cubical in that double storied temporary structure as the ‘Operations I’ of the WAC, a post that was filled by a Squadron Leader on those days. Read the rest of this entry

I Mourn for Karthigeyan


Flight Lieutenant Kuke Suresh walked into my office with a grim face. Flight Lieutenant M S Vasudeva walked in just behind him. Kuke was my adjutant and Vasu was the Unit Flight Safety Officer. It was the 29th of September 1969 and I was Archer One. We were at Hindan. ‘There has been an accident in Chandigarh‘, they sang out in unison. Read the rest of this entry

A Very Small World-8: Leena Travels WT


It was in the month of November 1970. I was at the tail end of my tennure as the CO of Black Archers (Number 47 Squadron Indian Air Force), then located at Hindan near Ghaziabad. I already had my posting order for my next appointment in my pocket; I was going as a Directing Staff to DSSC (Defence Services Staff College) Wellington, Nilgiris, Tamilnadu It was an appointment to my liking. I had the option of availing my full joining time and make the travel to Wellington into a holiday. On the other hand, Leena had not seen her parents for a long time while my mother had visited me just three or four months ago. It would be nice I thought if Leena could visit her parents at Siliguri before we moved down south. Read the rest of this entry

Stealing A Few Cockpit Moments


At long last I was on a staff job. Being the Operations I (OPS-1) of the Western Air Command was of course very prestigious and I was glad to be appointed to that post, but that did not alter the fact that this was the first non-flying appointment for me excluding the year I spent at the staff college. Here I was not on an air base. I missed the noise of roaring jets taking off, I missed the smell of kerosene pervading my mornings, I missed flying. It was a strange sensation. The life-long habit of getting out of bed an hour before sunrise and then attending a met briefing at dawn was no more necessary. A routine of Eight O’clock to Two O’clock on an office chair was so boring! I was mentally prepared to be a Staff Officer; I had been trained for it and had been appointed to a job I was determined to do well in, but emotionally I pined for those magical moments when throttles are opened, wheels roll and the aircraft lifts off the ground metaphorically lifting one’s soul. Read the rest of this entry